NAIROBI: Ransoms paid to Somali pirates to free merchant vessels are ending up in the hands of Islamist militants, laying shipping groups open to accusations of breaching international sanctions, U.N. officials said.
John Steed, the principal military adviser to the U.N. special envoy to Somalia and head of the envoy’s counter-piracy unit, said links between armed pirate gangs and Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels were gradually firming.
“The payment of ransoms just like any other funding activity, illegal or otherwise, is technically in breach of the Somalia sanctions regime if it makes the security situation in Somalia worse,” said Steed.
“Especially if it is ending up in the hands of terrorists or militia leaders – and we believe it is, some directly, some more indirectly,” said Steed, a retired military officer.
Ransom demands have risen steadily in recent years. According to one study, the average ransom stood at $5.4 million in 2010, up from $150,000 in 2005, helping Somali pirates rake in nearly $240 million last year.
Steed acknowledged he had no proof of an operational relationship between the pirates and the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab rebels who control much of southern and central Somalia and parts of the capital Mogadishu.
Some political analysts said the policy of some Western governments to endorse the payment of ransoms, seen as fueling the insecurity, is at odds with their financial support for the Somali government and the African troops propping it up.
Under the terms of the arms embargo on Somalia, financial support to armed groups in the Horn of Africa country is banned. Both the United States and Britain regard Al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization.
The U.N.’s Office on Drugs and Crime says pirates are increasingly launching their cross-ocean raids from the Al-Shabaab-controlledsouthern coastal city of Kismayu. Recruitment for pirates from the region was also on the rise, it said.
“Detained pirates tell us that some level of cooperation with Al-Shabaab is necessary to run a criminal enterprise,” said Alan Cole, piracy program coordinator at UNODC.
Al-Shabaab sources agree.
“If there was no relationship between us, there is no way the pirates would be able to operate, or carry their weapons within zones we control,” said an Al-Shabaab militant based in the pirate haven of Haradhere, which lies north of Mogadishu.
Natznet Tesfay of Executive Analysis said Al-Shabaab was heavily involved in smuggling through Kismayu, slapping taxes on illegal charcoal exports to the Gulf, arms shipments from Yemen and electronic goods destined for the region.
“Piracy and contraband smuggling are the two biggest games around,” said Tesfay at the specialist intelligence company.
Tesfay said she had yet to see evidence of an “operational relationship” between the pirates and Al-Shabaab but that the militants had a reputation for monopolizing key income-earning sectors once they had control of an area.
In February Al-Shabaab seized a number of pirate gang leaders in Haradhere and forced them to accept a multimillion dollar deal under which the pirates would hand over 20 percent of future ransoms.
A Reuters investigation found among other payments that had been made to Al-Shabaab’s “marine office,” a $200,000 payment from the release of the Japanese-owned MV Izumi after pirates received a $4.5 million ransom on Feb. 25; $80,000 from the $2 million release of the St Vincent & Grenadines-flagged MV Rak Africana; and $600,000 from the release of the German ship Beluga Nomination after a $5.5 million ransom was paid.
The amounts were corroborated by pirates, Al-Shabaab militants and residents of Haradhere.
“Some money has to be ending up in Al-Shabaab’s hands,” said Michael Frodl, a Washington lawyer and head of C-level Maritime Risks, which advises Lloyd’s of London underwriters.
Frodl questioned whether payment of ransoms would be even an indirect breach of the arms embargo, but said that if proved, it might break laws in the United States and Britain against funding terrorism.
In April 2010, President Barack Obama issued an executive order barring any financial dealings with 11 masterminds of the Somali conflict. According to the OFAC, two of them are in charge of pirate gangs.